Closet, Cage, or Cross?
A Response to the New York Times
by the Father Philip Bochanski
It has been one of the great privileges of my priesthood to work with the members of the Courage apostolate, faithful Catholics who experience same sex attractions and have decided to live chaste lives. I have encountered an unexpected joy in this work that has had a profound impact on my life and ministry: namely, the opportunity to support brother priests who experience same sex attractions. Their commitment to understanding themselves and their vocations better, as they strive for that “successful integration of sexuality” and “inner unity” that defines the virtue of chastity (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2337), has been an inspiration for me and a challenge to live my own priestly commitments more authentically.
It is often not easy for a priest, who has been formed to be generous in providing pastoral care, to ask for support and care in his own moments of need. The love that parishioners show their pastors ought to be a help, but sometimes it reinforces a priest’s hesitation, if he supposes that revealing his own weakness would mean losing their respect. Priests often live at a distance from one another, and amid busy schedules even the idea of calling on a brother priest can seem daunting. I do not underestimate the strength and courage it took for the priests that I serve to seek support, and I marvel at their pursuit of the Goals of Courage, set by our founding members in 1980. The third goal of Courage is particularly important for them: “To foster a spirit of fellowship in which all may share thoughts and experiences” so that no one need live with this experience alone.
Many stories that I hear from these courageous priests were reflected in the recent New York Times article about priests who identify as gay. They fear being misunderstood by superiors, coworkers, and parishioners. They suspect that people will neglect the nuance in the Church’s teaching, namely, that “the Church does not teach that the experience of homosexual attraction is in itself sinful” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination,” p. 5), and will condemn them as sinners for their feelings. They worry about recent discourse in the Church that suggests that the mere experience of same sex attractions disqualifies a man for priestly ministry. I understand these concerns, and how difficult it can be for a priest to seek support when these fears hold him back.
But I cannot understand, and I will not accept, the charge made in the New York Times’ headline, that the teaching of the Church on the subject of homosexuality is “a cage” designed to trap and torture priests who experience same sex attractions. This notion, that the Church’s moral teaching is inherently harmful and intentionally hateful, is false and is an impediment to understanding that teaching fully.
Let us say it clearly, with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons: “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action” (CDF, no. 10). It is a serious sin against the dignity of the human person, and when it comes from someone in the Church, it is not only sinful but gravely scandalous, and “deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs” (ibid.). The way that some of the priests interviewed by the Times say they were treated by bishops and fellow priests makes me ashamed and deeply sorry. That this happens, however, stems not from the nature of the Church, nor from her teaching, but from sin. The proper response is not to reject or change doctrine, but to call and challenge everyone in the Church to live it more fully.
That teaching is expressed in two paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that have been widely criticized for the language it employs, when the Catechism says that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” (no. 2357) and that a homosexual inclination “is objectively disordered” (no. 2358). Because, as Cardinal Francis George once wrote, “the Church speaks, in moral and doctrinal issues, a philosophical and theological language in a society that understands, at best, only psychological and political terms,” these terms have been deliberately misinterpreted to imply that the Church believes that a person who experiences same sex attractions is suffering from a mental disorder, or that “all of his or her love, even the most chaste, is disordered” (James Martin, SJ, Building a Bridge, 2nd ed., p. 74).
This is not what the Church means. “It is crucially important to understand,” the U.S. bishops conference wrote in 2006, “that saying a person has a particular inclination that is disordered is not to say that the person as a whole is disordered” (USCCB, p. 6). The term is used to indicate that an action, and the desires that lead to that action, do not form part of the plan of God for human life. Something is disordered precisely insofar as it departs from this plan, this order, for creation, for the body, for sexuality. Such a desire “is not ordered toward the fulfillment of the natural ends of human sexuality. Because of this, acting in accord with such an inclination simply cannot contribute to the true good of the human person” (ibid.). The Church says “no” to certain actions and desires, to say a bigger “yes” to the divine plan for human flourishing.
But something even more important is at stake than the term disordered, as we see reflected in the way that priests like Father Martin and those interviewed in the Times article speak about identity. Like many in the broader “LGBTQ” community, these priests speak about “being gay” in a way that asserts that same sex attractions are a natural, God-given, constitutive part of their identity. But this is a theological impossibility. As I have said elsewhere, it is not possible to assert that God deliberately creates a person to have a homosexual inclination, to “be gay” – God is not creating a different kind of human nature, with a different kind of sexual morality, nor does he create people and give them unfulfillable desires. If it is true that sexual acts between two people of the same sex are always immoral, and also true that “God … tempts no one” (James 1:13), then erotic or romantic desires for a person of the same sex do not, cannot, originate in God, and cannot be seen as a blessing or a good that defines a person’s identity.
Implicit in the adoption of a gay identity, then, or in saying that “God made me this way,” is a rejection of the Church’s teaching about homosexual inclinations and actions. But this is not just any teaching. Paragraph 2357 of the Catechism uses very particular, technical language to present the teaching, noting that “basing itself on Sacred Scripture … tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. … Under no circumstances can they be approved.” This invocation of Scripture and Tradition, rare if not unique in the Catechism, must mean that this teaching is to be considered part of the deposit of faith. That is, it is not a prudential judgment on the part of the hierarchy, much less a culturally-conditioned assumption that can change with the times; rather, it is a truth that must be held to be divinely revealed and infallibly taught by the ordinary universal magisterium. It is not up for debate or revision; such a teaching is “to be believed by divine and catholic faith” and “all are therefore bound to avoid all contrary doctrines” (Code of Canon Law, c. 750).
This obligation to believe what is divinely revealed is the responsibility of every faithful Christian; it is part of what it means to say, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” But it is a special obligation of the clergy and of those who teach in the name of the Church, who make a Profession of Faith and an Oath of Fidelity before being ordained, and before taking any office in the Church. “In fulfilling the charge entrusted to me in the name of the Church,” the candidate says, “I shall hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety; I shall faithfully hand it on and explain it, and I shall avoid any teachings contrary to it.” For a priest to embrace a gay identity, then, both impedes his self-understanding, and obstructs his presentation of the faith in its fullness to the people who have a right to receive authentic teaching from their pastors. “Departure from the Church’s teaching, or silence about it, in an effort to provide pastoral care is neither caring nor pastoral. Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral. The neglect of the Church’s position prevents homosexual men and women from receiving the care they need and deserve” (CDF, no. 15).
“What, then, are homosexual persons to do who seek to follow the Lord? Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross” (CDF, no. 12). For the priest who experiences same sex attractions, this begins with a humble, faithful submission to the teaching of the Church in regard to his identity: that the experience of his attractions is an important part of his experience, but that his true nature lies in being a man created in God’s image; a redeemed and adopted son of God; a baptized Christian; and a man ordained for prophetic and priestly service in imitation of Christ. His celibate vocation requires perpetual continence; that is, abstaining from sexually intimate thoughts, words, relationships and actions. But he is called more deeply to acquire the virtue of chastity, which means integration – understanding his identity as a man and as a priest as a call to spiritual fatherhood, to virile self-sacrifice for the sake of those under his care – and to exercise mastery over disordered thoughts and feelings so that he can love freely and authentically.
Chastity is not typically an easy virtue to acquire, particularly in the modern world, and the priest as much as any other man needs support and accompaniment along the way. “There can be little hope of living a healthy, chaste life without nurturing human bonds,” the US Bishops wrote. “Living in isolation can ultimately exacerbate one’s disordered tendencies and undermine the practice of chastity” (USCCB, p. 10). Nowhere does the Church’s teaching or practice forbid a priest to share his experience of same sex attractions with trusted confidants. “For some persons, revealing their homosexual tendencies to certain close friends, family members, a spiritual director, confessor, or members of a Church support group may provide some spiritual and emotional help and aid them in their growth in the Christian life” (USCCB, p. 17), and it has been a tremendous privilege for me to be entrusted with this intimate confidence by brother priests.
But as spiritual fathers, priests ought not to share every personal struggle with their spiritual sons and daughters: “in the context of parish life,” the US Bishops note, “general public self-disclosures are not helpful and should not be encouraged” (ibid.). Parishioners who have only a ministerial relationship with their parish priest are often left confused about whether that relationship has changed: “Why is Father telling me this? Does he need me to do something to help him?” It is not promoting clericalism or inauthenticity to ask a priest to keep private things private, for the sake of not burdening his pastoral relationships, and to share his own struggles and particular needs with his spiritual director, mentors, and close friends rather than from the pulpit.
So what the Church proposes to priests who are experiencing same sex attractions is a Cross, not a cage nor a closet. The world says, “What’s the difference?”, but the Christian knows that the paradox of the Cross is that, the more closely one configures himself to Christ, the freer one becomes to be himself. The Crucified One took on extra burdens in order to unburden others; he was nailed in place in order to set others free; he “testified to the truth” (cf. John 18:37) at the price of his own life, so that we could come to believe. The priest who experiences same sex attractions is called to make particular sacrifices, which the Church knows well and about which the Church is deeply concerned and intensely sympathetic. But this is the nature of his vocation: at his ordination the bishop exhorts the newly-ordained to “understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” The prayer of every faithful Catholic ought to be that our priests who experience same sex attractions embrace fully the teaching of the Church, seek support and accompaniment in their striving for virtue, and become more deeply configured, even through their experience of suffering, to Christ the High Priest.
Father Philip Bochanski, a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is the executive director of Courage International.